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A sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria (germ) Treponema pallidum.

What is syphilis?

  • A sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacteria (germ) Treponema pallidum.
  • Syphilis is often called “the great imitator” as its symptoms mimic many other diseases
  • Syphilis infections seem to be increasing in men worldwide
  • Syphilis initially causes genital ulcers but undetected and untreated infection can lead to serious complications later
  • Syphilis is completely treatable if detected early enough
  • Untreated syphilis increases your risk of HIV transmission

How can I get it?

  • Syphilis is transmitted by unprotected sex
  • Syphilis is spread through unprotected oral, anal, or vaginal sex with someone who is already infected
  • You can get syphilis through oral sex, even if there is no oral exposure to semen
  • Syphilis can be spread through direct skin to skin contact with a syphilis ulcer (sore), although this is very rare
  • Syphilis bacteria die very quickly outside of the body and therefore you cannot get syphilis from casual contact such as hugging, kissing or sharing food and drink
  • You cannot get syphilis from toilet seats and doorknobs

How do I know if I have syphilis?

The symptoms of syphilis infection vary and can be divided into four stages:

  • Stage 1

    1. Occurs 1-4 months after sexual exposure to an infected partner
    2. Presents as a small painless sore or ulcer, usually on the penis or anus
    3. Anal ulcers may be internal and impossible to see
    4. Ulcers may also occur on the lips and tongue or elsewhere in the mouth and throat
    5. Syphilis ulcers are easy to miss and often heal on their own, even if left untreated. Unfortunately, healing of the ulcer does not mean that the disease is cured – just that it has moved on to the next stage
  • Stage 2

    1. Occurs 2-6 months after the stage 1 ulcer has healed
    2. Usually causes strange rashes which often affect the palms of your hands and soles of your feet
    3. Non-specific flu-like illness with sore throat and fever
  • Stage3

    1. This is called the “latent” or hidden stage of syphilis as it usually causes no symptoms
    2. Syphilis bacteria are still present in the body and can be transmitted to sexual partners
    3. Untreated latent syphilis will progress to the next stage if not treated
  • Stage 4

    1. This is usually called “tertiary syphilis” and can occur many years after initial infection
    2. At this advanced stage, syphilis is not infectious to other sexual partners
    3. This stage of disease attacks your nervous system and can cause strokes, brain damage, blindness and hearing loss
    4. The disease also attacks the heart and can damage your heart valves and aorta
    5. This stage is much more difficult to treat and symptoms may be irreversible

How do I get tested for syphilis infection?

  • Syphilis is diagnosed by taking a blood sample and sending it off to the laboratory for a “VDRL” or “RPR” test
  • The test can be confusing if you have previously been treated for syphilis 
  • Sometimes, further confirmatory tests may be needed
  • It is recommended that you get a screening blood test for syphilis regularly as you may have the disease without knowing it
  • Always get screened if you develop a genital or throat ulcer (sore)

How do I prevent it?

  • A monogamous relationship, or reducing your number of sexual partners, help avoid this infection
  • Condoms will usually prevent syphilis infections although oral infections can still occur if condoms are not used for oral sex
  • Anal douching and rinsing your mouth after sex will not prevent infection
  • Regular screening for this disease will prevent your not knowing that you are infected, and will prevent you spreading it to your sex partners

How do I get treatment?

  • The early stages of syphilis are easily treated with penicillin, injected into your buttocks
  • You will need three doses, given at one week intervals – it is very important to complete all three doses of the treatment
  • Penicillin-allergic patients can be treated with alternative antibiotics
  • If you have had sex while infected with syphilis, you should contact any known sex partners as they may have contracted the infection and need treatment. It is also important that your regular partner gets treatment at the same time, to prevent the infection being transmitted back and forth between you to

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